How to Create a Great Tutorial on Anything at All

iStock_tutorialThis week I was on a mission. I needed information—and fast.

Ok, maybe not life or death fast. More like finish-this-project-before-the-deadline fast. It probably would have been possible to figure out the gaps in my knowledge by trial and error, but I didn’t have time to waste.

So I asked for help.

There’s always someone who knows the solution to your problem, but that doesn’t mean that answers come easy. I searched every index and glossary on my shelves with no luck. I read through old notes. Nada. The deadline was coming fast, and I was running low on resources.

So I turned to my last—but hardly least—resource: my online peers. It wasn’t long before I found a wealth of knowledge in the world of tutorials.

If You Teach It, They Will Learn

Tutorials are one of the most undervalued resources. Desperate searchers are quick to check Wikipedia and discussion forums for solutions to their problems. For some reason, few people regularly bookmark sites that offer step-by-step instructions.

What is it that makes people shy away from tutorials?

Most often, the answer is time. Going through a tutorial seems a bigger commitment than skimming the latest wiki update. The truth is that heading straight for a tutorial can save time and energy that you would otherwise have to spend researching.

Tutorials are designed to make a difficult task easier by providing simple instructions for potentially complicated steps. They become scary when the time investment doesn’t seem worth the knowledge offered.

Being an expert at something doesn’t make you good at teaching others.

There are just a few basic requirements to make a good tutorial. Paying attention to the details can mean the difference between providing fast help and wasting someone’s time.

Your tutorial gets the attention it deserves when you give special attention to these four aspects of every good tutorial: language, organization, presentation, and content.

Layman’s Tongue

The most obvious requirement for a good tutorial is the ability to communicate effectively.

People want tutorials so they can grasp a process that they don’t already understand. If a tutorial is so full of technical language that the only people who can read it are those who know the process anyway, it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Ever wonder why the instructional “for dummies” books are so popular? They talk to the reader in plain language, one any person can understand. The technical jargon is stripped away.

All that’s left is pure, sweet knowledge.

You know the language of your trade or skill, and your challenge is to find a way to communicate your knowledge in ways others can understand as well.

In other words, know your audience. A group of experienced coders might understand what overflow, float, and the difference between padding and margins are, but those coders aren’t the ones looking for a tutorial on website design.

Accessible Organization

It takes more time to create a tutorial than it does to work through one. Before you can help others and teach them, you need your own thoughts in order. A tutorial that skips around or leaves information out isn’t good for anyone.

Whether you’re doing a step-by-step video or writing a how-to article, start with an outline or list that helps keep your tutorial clear and organized.

The best way to get organized is to go through the process you plan to teach. Take notes each step of the way. Instead of pulling information from memory, where you’re likely to skip a step because it comes to you naturally, pay close attention to what you’re doing. Try to see the process through the eyes of a first-timer.

Think about what confused you the first time you tried. Jot down the questions you had. Try to remember what tripped you up. Write down the minor steps, even if they seem obvious or common sense to you now.

When you’re done, go through your outline slowly and make sure the process is divided into logical steps. Ask a friend to try it. Test it yourself.

Then test it again (and again) until all the bugs are worked out and the information is crystal clear.

Impressive Presentation

Presentation is the all-important hook that gets your tutorial attention. I’ve seen many tutorials with excellent information that were of such poor quality that learning was a struggle.

If you spent as much time figuring out your lesson as you should have, you shouldn’t waste that effort by offering a final product that doesn’t reflect your knowledge and skill.

Pay attention to details. Fix grammar and spelling. Make sure your formatting is proper. When you have downloads, test them. Make sure all your links are live. If you’re making a video, don’t skimp on editing.

Don’t sabotage good work by offering it on an ugly tray.

Also, make sure that the final formats you use for your presentation are accessible to a majority of users. Not everyone can download large files, and not everyone can view Quicktime or Flash.

You could even post multiple copies of your tutorial in different formats and let people choose what they’d like. Be bold in getting your knowledge publicized.

Crucial Content

A good tutorial finds its greatest worth in the quality of information presented. A tutorial can have the best presentation and the clearest language in the world, but if the knowledge within isn’t worth knowing, the tutorial isn’t worth it.

Give viewers an introduction. Tell them exactly what you’re teaching, list what they’ll need to complete the project, and provide a brief overview of the areas you’ll cover. Offer a skill level, if needed. Is this for a beginner, an intermediate, or an advanced user?

If a tutorial ends up being long, break it down into manageable sections. Remember that people want good information, but they want it fast. A good tutorial makes time fly because it’s enjoyable, but aim for brevity without skimping on the important details.

After you have your content, take one last look at it. Ask yourself, will the viewer see immediate results at the end of each step? If the tutorial is part of a series, does each lesson build on the next? Cohesion is an essential part of any written work, but it’s especially important in projects carried out by people who may not understand the value of the individual steps.

A Good Teacher?

Before you start spreading your nuggets of wisdom, ask yourself if you’re the right person to teach the lesson. You may know how to put a pretty background up on a proboard, but does that mean you’re suited to give a lesson on web design?

Tutorials can even help you realize that you don’t know as much about a topic as you think you do – and that lesson is just as important for you as it is the person who needs to learn (from someone else).

If you do feel qualified to teach on the subject, tutorials are a great way to cement your grasp of the process and to spread appreciation for the work that you do. Everyone has something to teach, and for as long as there’s a teacher, there will always be a student waiting to learn.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Well said Harry. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone through a tutorial and had to have help understanding the instructions.
    .-= Melinda | WAHM Biz Builder´s last blog ..Email Goof-Up, or Don’t Diss Your Customers =-.

  2. How to post are actually some of my favorites to do. I always try to be a clear and precise about it. I think they should be able to do it step by little step. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s worth it for the reader.
    .-= Chris Anderson´s last blog ..Why People Buy From You =-.

  3. Great post, nothing worse that not understanding the instructions… happens all too often :-)
    .-= Maria Reyes-McDavis´s last blog ..Social Media is Not About Launching =-.

  4. Nice post. I have written a few tutorials and I tend to overlook those simple (but very important) rules for writing a good tutorial. It’s the difference between happy readers and readers asking for more explanation and/or getting frustrated.
    I’m going to print this post and put it on my wall, so that I never loose track of those guidelines.
    .-= Peter´s last blog ..5 Free Audio Analysis Tools =-.

  5. I always try to get an in depth knack of the subject matter, while doing a how to’s or manuals and then break em into simple lingo… that is easy on the brains of non-savvys….
    .-= Write a Writing´s last blog ..How to Write Creatively =-.

  6. Make sure your tutorial is task-focused. Most audiences on the Web expect a tutorial to be a series of steps they can work through, after which they will know how to do something they didn’t know before. For some authors, especially those from academia, a tutorial is any explanation of *anything* the reader didn’t know before. This can lead to a clash of expectations and disappointed readers. If what you’re explaining is heavy on concepts and light on steps, call it an “overview” or “introduction”, or something else besides “tutorial”.

  7. Teaching helps me learn.

    Great article, thanks.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Do you feel lighter, more compassionate, more joyful, more natural, more playful? =-.

  8. When in doubt, read the instructions. . .

    As someone who writes training guides (among other things), I’d say that you’re on target with this.

    In an ideal situation, you’d have a reviewer test your instructions to make sure that you didn’t leave out a step or use language that is too obscure for the reader.

    In real life, that isn’t always possible and sometimes you just have to try and look at it with fresh eyes.
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Tips For Writing an E-Book =-.

  9. @Melinda: A good tutorial is hard to find sometimes, but they are out there. Once you do find them, it’s well worth the effort.

    @Chris: How To posts are easy, especially if you walk yourself through each step as you’re writing so you don’t miss anything.

    @Peter: Thanks! The less you have to explain to a reader, the better. A tutorial should be so easy to follow that anyone can pick it up and do it.

    @Maria: So true. I think the worst set of instructions I ever had to deal with were the ones in the maintenance manual for the motorcycle. The pictures were crappy, the instructions confusing as hell. Thank the tech gods for digital cameras. Before I took each piece off, I’d snap a picture so I could see later where it was supposed to go.

    @Write a Writing: Simplicity is definitely the key. People are already struggling, what they want is instant relief.

    @Janet: Good point. By the time someone is searching out a tutorial, chances are they already understand the concept, but something is lacking in the execution. That’s where it needs to be broken down so they can see what they’re missing.

    @Kaushik: You’re welcome!

    @Laura: Instructions? What are those? Sheesh, half the time I just dump the stuff out of the box and start assembling ;)

    James is an excellent tester. I figure if he can follow it, anyone can. He’s got a good eye for that sort of thing.

  10. Frank Lynch says:

    True! There are so many qaucks online trying to teach this and that thinking that they know it all,but your post is a real eye opener to them. Teaching is the noblest form of profession imparting knowledge is the knowledge gain! we should look inside ourselves whether we are fully equipped for this job or not.But then again there are so many good and thorough tutorials are also available online and i have happen to read them and yes they have been very useful to me but i also agree that all these tutorial weer in sync with the tips you have mentioned in your post.

  11. Yes, yes, oh my goodness yes. Every single programmer who ever writes a tutorial needs to read this (I only mention programmers because those are the tutorials I generally tend to read). Far too often, I find myself giving up on tutorials because they’re so difficult to read and understand, for the reasons you’ve listed.

    So many of them make huge assumptions about the knowledge of their readers. Since I’m a self taught programmer, and therefore don’t have the basic knowledge that most university-taught programmers have, it’s endlessly frustrating to have to stop every minute and go look up what this acronym, or that programming term means. Even if you don’t want to completely dumb down your tutorial for the least knowledgeable of your audience (especially if you expect to attract people who are already somewhat trained in the subject), I still think you should show the tutorial to someone completely outside of the field and then include links that explain any terms, etc. that aren’t familiar to them.

    Then they don’t correct spelling, grammar, don’t check to see if their code compiles correctly… *sigh* And so many don’t have a good grasp of the language they’re writing in… of course I understand that many, many programmers (or anyone else who would write any sort of tutorial) don’t speak English as their first language, but I think if you’re going to write any sort of tutorial in a language that’s not your first language, you need to have it looked over by someone who does speak the language well before you publish it. (I know I certainly would if I ever wrote a tutorial in Japanese, for example!)

    Okay, rant over. :P But seriously, I may be passing this post around. I can think of quite a few people (some of whom I know personally) who need to take this advice to heart.
    .-= Allison Day´s last blog ..Red Dragon Roll =-.

  12. As a frequent tutorial seeker I resonate with the fact that when you’re desperate you’re looking for a tutorial or a forum discussion.

    Somehow, getting that quick fix makes you feel safe…

    Great article, loved it.

    Igor
    .-= IgorHelpsYouSucceed´s last blog ..Webmaster Tools Onslaught: Bing vs Google vs Yahoo =-.

  13. I love your article and all the steps you explained. This is something that most of manufacturers should take example of. I remember when I bought some furniture and it took me 2 days to assemble it based on the drawings and I still wasn’t able to perfectly assemble one piece because it was badly designed.

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